VIENTIANE — Regional defense ministers on Wednesday spoke of the importance of freedom of marine and air traffic in the South China Sea, which is increasingly becoming a potential hotspot of conflict.
“[The ministers] reiterate the importance of maintaining peace, stability and security as well as upholding freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, as provided for by universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” read the joint declaration issued following the meeting of defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
They also stressed the need for a speedy conclusion of a legally binding code of conduct for the disputed waters.
Laotian Defense Minister Chansamone Chanyalath, who chaired the meeting, said, “Unilateral actions and changing the status quo (in the South China Sea) should be avoided.”
China’s military build-up on at least seven artificial islands, which it is building in a bid to cement its territorial claims, has sparked fears that Beijing is forming a de facto air defense identification zone, which would restrict air traffic.
The expansionist moves have been challenged by the U.S. in “freedom of navigation operations,” where American warships sailed near the artificial islands. The most recent U.S. patrol was conducted early this month, according to reports.
Beijing and Washington’s maritime face-off occasionally jacks up tensions in the area, where ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have overlapping claims.
The outcome of the meeting echoed concerns of the ASEAN foreign ministers who met here in late February, but discussion of the South China Sea dispute was subdued by concerns about terrorism.
“The most important is how we confront terrorism and the unity of ASEAN,” Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told the Nikkei Asian Review when asked about the key highlights of the meeting.
In January, seven people were killed in Jakarta in bomb and gun attacks led by the Islamic State terrorist group.
“The threat of terrorism is real,” Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters. “There was a very serious regard by almost all the defense ministers in dealing with this threat.”
Most ministers spoke about adherence to international law in solving the South China Sea dispute, but they stopped short of directly backing the Philippines’ move to void China’s expansive claim through a United Nations arbitration process, sources said.
During the ASEAN meeting with China, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said that Beijing, which has snubbed the arbitration, will reject the UN court’s decision, which is expected to come out as early as next month.
The ministers also agreed to strengthen coordination on disaster response and cyber security, among other issues.
Nikkei staff writer Wataru Yoshida contributed to this report.